By Sharon Atieno

With COVID-19 cases continuing to spread across the continent from capital cities to other areas, Africa has confirmed more than 10,000 cases and 500 deaths in the 52 countries where cases have been reported. 

“COVID-19 has the potential not only to cause thousands of deaths, but to also unleash economic and social devastation. Its spread beyond major cities means the opening of a new front in our fight against this virus,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa. 

“This requires a decentralised response, which is tailored to the local context. Communities need to be empowered, and provincial and district levels of government need to ensure they have the resources and expertise to respond to outbreaks locally.”

To ensure the rapid identification of cases, the tracking down and quarantining of contacts and the isolation and treatment of patients, WHO is working with governments across Africa to scale up their capacities in critical response areas such as coordination, surveillance, testing, isolation, case management, contact tracing, infection prevention and control, risk communication and community engagement, and laboratory capacity.

According to Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa still has an opportunity to reduce and slow down disease transmission.

“All countries must rapidly accelerate and scale up a comprehensive response to the pandemic, including an appropriate combination of proven public health and physical distancing measures.  Within that process, Member States should target effective control of the outbreak, but plan for the worst,” he said.

“Early isolation of all cases, including mild cases, is one of the key control measures, along with early detection, early treatment and contact tracing.  Timely and accurate epidemiological data is one of the most important tools to inform and drive the response.”

Dr Al-Mandhari adds that health care workers must be protected and appropriately equipped as they are on the front lines and need unwavering support.

Meanwhile, over 200 international organizations including World Animal Protection, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International, Born Free and Wild Aid, have urged WHO to endorse a permanent ban on live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine.

The letter issued to the international health body states:“ While a robust global response is critical in detecting, treating and reducing transmission [of COVID-19], it is equally necessary to take vital measures to prevent similar emerging infectious diseases developing into pandemics with the associated threats to human life, and social and economic well-being.” 

“We all commend WHO’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.  Given this pandemic is believed to have originated at a wildlife market, we’re calling on WHO to unequivocally state the proven link between these markets and the serious threats they can cause to human health,” said Edith Kabesiime, Wildlife campaign manager, World Animal Protection while advocating for the ban.

The organizations have also strongly urged WHO to recommend to governments worldwide to address the potential risks to human health from the trade in wildlife – including collection from the wild, ranching, farming, transport, and trade through physical or online markets for any purpose – and act to close down or limit such trade in order to mitigate those risks.

In addition, they have called for the unequivocal exclusion of the use of wildlife, including from captive bred specimens, in the WHO’s definition and endorsement of Traditional Medicine and revise WHO’s 2014-2023 Traditional Medicine Strategy accordingly to reflect this change.

WHO has also been urged to assist governments and lead a coordinated response among the World Trade Organisation, World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and other multilateral organisations worldwide in awareness-raising activities to clearly inform of the risks of wildlife trade to public health, social cohesion, economic stability, law and order, and individual health.

Moreover, they have called for WHO to support and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to subsistence consumers of wild animals, in order to further reduce the risk to human health.